Monday, 13 February 2012

Cutting back on short life carrier bags

Seas At Risk are calling for a Europe wide ban on short life, disposable carrier bags. With 70% of respondents to a European public consultation agreeing that a Europe wide ban on plastic bags is necessary, the pressure is now on the EU to implement a ban that is reasonable, and reduces unnecessary waste.

Firstly, it is important to recognise that a ban on disposable carrier bags is hardly new nor uncommon. In 2009, the UN Under-Secretary-General Achim Steiner stated that single use plastic bags “should be banned or phased-out rapidly everywhere: there is simply zero justification for manufacturing them anymore, anywhere”.

Bans on short-life carrier bags is also a growing phenomenon across the globe, notably pursued in both developed and developing nations, and of course Europe already has its own Member State with a ban in place in the form of Italy, who implemented one just last year.

Not all plastics are bad, but some are worse than others

Our call for action on carrier bags primarily concerns short-life disposable bags which are distributed within the retail sector. Our broader interest here is in a shift away from the use of disposable products and a move towards long life, sustainably sourced materials. This is the sort of change in habit that is crucial in order to tackle marine litter and particularly plastic pollution.

The notorious short life carrier bags really are the ultimate low hanging fruit. They are relatively unnecessary products, the alternative use of a long life bag is hardly a major drain on the individual and quantities produced are staggering; according to the EU, the average European citizen uses around 500 plastic carrier bags annually, most of which are used only once.

And this does not even take into consideration the impact on the marine environment. According to data from trawl surveys in the UK and the North Sea, plastic bags make up almost 40% of all marine litter in these locations and in the Bay Biscay most of the waste items found on the seabed were plastic and of those 94% were plastic bags. The impacts of course can be shocking as marine life becomes entangled or dies through ingestion or suffocation and other looming concerns relate to the possible transfer of chemicals from plastics to internal tissues of marine life, and potentially to humans along the food chain.

In addition, it is also important here to expel the perverse argument that measures should not be implemented to deter disposable plastic bag use; on the basis that bags made from other materials would have to be used disproportionately more times in order to match the global warming potential of a disposable bag. This argument is perverse because of course a long life bag should be used multiple times: that’s the point!

Banning what exactly

As regards an EU wide ban, our first demand is that all short-life carrier bags, made from plastic or bio based products, should be banned from distribution in the retail sector. Such a ban could be implemented by considering certain criteria such as the thickness and resistance of the bag.

Our second demand is that long-life carrier bags are only allowed for distribution at a cost. Here, criteria for their design would also be needed to ensure against bags being sold as long-life that in reality end up only lasting for a short period time. In addition, we also propose the allowance to set a levy on such bags to ensure against over-consumption if the price signal fails.

The objective of this approach is of course to encourage the use of bagging that lasts, for years; an objective that is implicit within the EU strategy to “to assist consumers to consume differently in order to reduce the resource use and associated environmental impacts.” Short life carrier bags are only one part of the problem, but there must be EU action here to show there is substance behind these words, to respect the overwhelming opinion of EU citizens and of course to help protect the marine environment against plastic pollution.

This blog is an extended and amended version of a letter that first appeared in the European Voice.